“George Washington: Anguish and Farewell (1793-1799)” is the fourth and final volume in James Thomas Flexner’s detailed and captivating study of the life of our nation’s first President. This volume explores the last years of Washington’s life, from the earliest days of his second term as President to his death at Mt. Vernon. The book also marks the end of a 12 year journey by Flexner to portray the “real” George Washington who he felt had been limited by legend to being a rigid, stoic hero – a robotic figure sent by Providence to mechanically build a new nation.
In his effort to show Washington as a wonderfully colorful character full of the same ambitions and failings as many of us, Flexner succeeded brilliantly. While his series was still a work-in-progress, he was apparently often asked what he hoped to accomplish by writing “yet another” book on Washington. Though his completed series on Washington makes that question seem a bit obtuse, it had been widely believed that little remained to be discovered of Washington (after all, why would anyone actually wish to examine his personality or philosophical convictions?)
What emanates from this final volume in Flexner’s series (and flows freely from each of the three previous books as well) is not only a terrific narrative of the accomplishments and failings that made Washington the man he became but also the ethical principles he embraced, the personal ambitions which provided his fuel and how steadfastly he put his nation’s priorities before his own. Flexner describes a Washington who is seemingly, and sometimes simultaneously, politically naive but also acutely insightful and astute. He describes a President conscious of the precedents he sets at critical moments, yet is often seemingly unaware of the scheming, manipulation and deception being nourished in the shadows around him.
Most poignantly, the Washington we get to know in this book is an almost melancholy figure, only reluctantly accepting of the fact that destiny called him to serve a second term as President. Although he realizes he is the glue holding together a fragile new nation (a fact reinforced by his compatriots at both ends of the political spectrum), it is not difficult to imagine he would have much rather risen each day at Mt. Vernon with little to do but ride his land, inventory his crops and entertain guests. Although we instinctively know it would not have fully satisfied him, we see the image of a man who probably would have, had wishes known only to him come true, traded places with the political figures who so coveted the office he held. Some were, of course, later elected into that position.
Flexner also provides a front row seat to witness the birth of American political parties, whose nasty smears in Washington’s time seem altogether familiar to modern readers. And when describing the violent friction of a then-divided Congress (with a Federalist Senate and Republican House) we are reminded that we are not the first generation to find ourselves with divided (and sometimes useless) government.
Particularly interesting was Flexner’s perspective on Washington’s Farewell Address. While the Address has sometimes received acclaim equal to the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, authorship has often been – somewhat pejoratively – attributed entirely to Alexander Hamilton’s pen. The full story behind its drafting is more interestingly nuanced and also demonstrates Hamilton’s affection for his former mentor. Despite having another 200 pages to read at that point in the book, I was compelled to read the Farewell Address in its entirety in order to marvel at what history has long recognized (inexplicably, I was never asked to read it while in school).
My favorite aspect of Flexner’s whole series, however, is probably in reading (and re-reading) his conclusions on Washington at each juncture of his life. In this final book of his series, Flexner’s concluding remarks are again penetrating, profoundly insightful and well constructed given the evidence and analysis in preceding chapters. If ever there were pages of a book to copy and set aside, surely Flexner’s final reflections on our nation’s first President, his motives and his relationships is among those to store away and safeguard.
Departing Flexner’s tremendous series on George Washington (after 1,800+ pages), I am looking forward to the other biographies on Washington which I’m about to read. Flexner’s work provides a high bar against which to compare all others, particularly of Washington. But I count fewer than ten reviews on a well-known website for any of Flexner’s four volumes (though his later published abridgment of the series has gained a somewhat wider audience). How this is possible given the quality of Flexner’s series I can only ascribe to the length of time which has passed since publication, the significant time commitment required to get through the series, and the short attention span most of us have for anything unrelated to sports, our children or subjects not taken for a grade.
But now…on to a much shorter and much more well-read biography on Washington. This one authored by a professor educated at an institution where, ironically, George Washington served as its first American chancellor (The College of William & Mary): Pulitzer-prize winning author Joseph J. Ellis, author of “His Excellency: George Washington.”
Overall rating: 4½ stars